Shootout at Fort Wingate. The Assassination of Bandit Bill by the Coward Billy Bob. Billy and the Fatman Joe. Capcom could have named their old west shooter just about anything, but they had to choose Gun.Smoke. Although the name strongly implies that the game is based on the long-running TV show, there is in fact no relation. They chose the name, but due to copyright issues they were forced to add an extra period in the middle of the name. Capcom could have gone with something as simple as The Wild West, but they opted for Gun, period, Smoke. Capcom, you confuse me.
One thing I'm not confused about, though, is how entertaining this arcade-style shooter is. It's a mix of Commando and Xevious, a 2D vertical shooter that has you shooting in all directions in order to take out criminals, indians and ... ninjas? Whatever you say Capcom. Regardless of whether this is historically accurate or not, Gun.Smoke is one of Capcom's greatest 8-bit shooters. But no matter how good this NES game is, it still pales in comparison to the classic arcade game.
What sets Gun.Smoke apart from the rest of the 8-bit shooters is the control you have over which direction you fire. Instead of only being able to shoot in one direction, this NES game allows you to shoot in one of three different directions, all while constantly moving you forward. It works like this, the "A" button shoots the gun slightly left, while the "B" button has you shooting diagonal right. You push both of these buttons together to shoot forward. This is a control scheme that takes mere seconds to learn and takes this from being a good shooter to a great one.
On top of offering your standard six-shooter, Gun.Smoke gives you a chance to find (and buy) a number of other powerful weapons. You have the shotgun (which shoots a wide net of bullets), the quick-shootin' machine gun, the powerful magnum and even a smart bomb that will kill everybody on the screen the moment you get shot. And did I mention that you can ride a horse? It's true, and the horse works as a shield allowing you to take a few more bullets before dying.
You fight through a number of wild west-themed levels, including an Indian-filled forest, a traditional old timey town and the iconic Fort Wingate. Outside of enemies and the obstacles that get in the way, these levels are largely the same. The game is always forcing your forward, so there's not much room for you to explore your surroundings.
Looking back at the game now I'm surprised at how frustratingly difficult the game is. I remember Gun.Smoke being challenging when I played it as a kid, but twenty years later I am discovering that it is easily one of the most difficult 8-bit games I've experienced. But it's not so difficult that you can't get through it with a little practice. Like most shoot-em-ups, there's a lot of memorization and luck involved. There are a few slowdowns that plague the action, but if you're looking for a solid 2D shooter on the NES then this is a good place to start.
But I couldn't end this review without addressing the one major problem with Gun.Smoke on the NES. Compared to the arcade game, this home console port is missing levels, bosses, weapons and much, much more. This is not Capcom's most thorough port, which is a huge disappointment. These days it's not hard to find better ports of the original arcade release, so purists may want to opt for that over this slimmed down console game. Still, there's enough here to recommend the NES cartridge. I love the art style and how unforgiving the difficulty is. I love most of the bosses and the atmosphere Capcom has added to this classic game. I love the control scheme and wished that more overhead shooters would have adopted it. I like Gun.Smoke, but I still think they should have spent a few extra hours thinking up a proper (and original) name.